I am very excited to have Tanya Brothen providing Mango a Guest Blog Post. She has spent the last 14 years learning how to correctly pronounce French words. While living in Paris in 2008 she started Parisian Spring, a blog about the life and interests of a Francophile traveler. Tanya currently spends her days working in Washington, D.C., and her nights wishing she owned a home in Provence.
Question: What do the words “accident,” “fruit,” and “table,” have in common?
Answer: All three are regularly used in conversation by English and French speakers alike.
Thanks to the Normans who conquered England in 1066, roughly one third of all English words are of French origin (some by way of Latin), with many of those words spelled exactly the same in both languages. Think of “courage,” “original,” and “million.” On any given day, Anglophones are regularly using French words without even thinking about it.
Question: Does this similarity of vocabulary translate into ease in learning the language?
Answer: Don’t bet on it.
See, while the words look the same, their pronunciations are often completely different. When pronounced in French, the word “fruit” sounds more like “fwee” rather than its English cousin, “froot.” Francophones wouldn’t dream of pronouncing the “t” in “accident,” and you’re going to need to perfect your from-the-throat hacking sounds to correctly say “original” in front of a Parisian. You could argue that the similar-look/different-pronunciation conundrum is actually a hindrance to Anglophone learners of French, tricking them into consistently mispronouncing the words that look familiar.
Adding to the confusion are the famous “faux amis,” or false friends. These are words that, while spelled the same in both French and English, not only have different pronunciations, but also completely different meanings. Take the word “sensible,” for example. To the English speaker, it means having or showing good judgment, but the French speaker uses "sensible" to describe a sensitive person or thing.
Question: So what's an Anglophone learner of French to do?
Answer: It might sound daunting, but straight-up memorization is what helped me. Flash cards are another good option; simply write the word on one side of a card and the meaning in both French and English on the other side. For help with pronunciation, try watching a French movie with English subtitles, which allows you to see a word like "original" written in English but pronounced in French.
You'll know your French skills have truly arrived when you start searching for the meaning or pronunciation of a faux ami in English rather than en Français. By this point, the previously foreign language will probably start coming to you naturally. And if it doesn’t, you can always blame the Normans.